Depression

Depression

Depression is a serious illness that interferes with everyday life. It is important to get help if you are concerned about your child's depression. Depression can be treated effectively.

Key points to remember about depression in children and young people

  • depression is a serious illness that interferes with everyday life
  • it is important to get help if you are concerned about your child's depression
  • depression can be treated effectively

What is depression in children and young people?

Lots of children feel sad or upset some of the time when they think that everything is going wrong with friends, at school, and home. Depression is different to feeling sad or miserable - it's an illness and its symptoms last for a long time and interfere with a child or young person carrying on with their everyday activities.

How common is depression in children and young people?

About 5 in 100 children experience depression. Both boys and girls can experience the illness. Depression is more common in teenagers - affecting approximately 9 in 100 young men and 18 in 100 young women.

Children and young people who are at higher risk for depression are those who are very stressed, have learning or behaviour difficulties, or have experienced a loss.

What causes depression in children and young people?

No one knows the exact cause of depression, but experts believe a combination of environmental and biological factors are important. Research has shown that depression can run in families who may have vulnerable genes. Stressful and negative events can also cause depression, and alcohol and drug use and physical illnesses increase a person's chances of experiencing depression. A person who focuses on the negative aspects of life is also more likely to experience depression.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression in children and young people?

The symptoms of depression are often different for different people.

Common symptoms are:

  • feeling miserable, irritable, and unable to cope
  • anger and rage, verbal sarcasm and attack
  • overreaction to criticism
  • low self-confidence
  • feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and guilt
  • difficulty experiencing pleasure like they used to
  • loss of sexual desire in adolescents
  • trouble sleeping or waking up earlier than usual
  • changes in appetite
  • frequent complaints of physical illness (such as headaches, stomach aches)
  • poor concentration, memory and decision making skills
  • being overwhelmed and thinking negatively about the future
  • rebellious refusal to work or cooperate
  • thoughts of suicide and self-harm

Depression in children and young people is different to adults, and they may be more irritable and rebellious than sad. Children and young people may not be able to express in words how they are feeling because of their age. Also, they may deny that they have a problem or 'put on a happy face' because they are concerned that people will think there is something wrong with them and they do not understand what is going on for them.

It is important not to discount symptoms of depression as 'just being a teenager' and a phase that they will grow out of. This is not the case. Depression is a serious illness that needs to be addressed properly.

The signs and symptoms of depression may be shared with other childhood problems (such as anxiety) and can require professional help to assess properly.

When should I seek help for my child's depression?

If you are concerned that a child or young person is depressed and they have been experiencing symptoms for a long time (longer than a few weeks) it is important that you seek help. It is important that a professional who knows about depression in children and young people carries out the assessment. Physical examinations are also recommended to ensure that there is no underlying illness causing the symptoms.

Going to your family doctor is the recommended first step as they will be able to provide guidance about where to get further help. This may involve a referral to child and adolescent mental health services, which can provide specialist assessment and interventions for depression.

What is the treatment for depression in children and young people?

Medicine and psychological therapy are the 2 researched treatments for depression - these can happen independently or in combination. The treatment chosen will often depend on how severe the depression is and personal preference.

Antidepressant medicine influences the chemicals in the brain to improve a person's mood and can be helpful for moderate to severe depression. A doctor needs to prescribe medicine and you need to take it for a number of weeks to experience a difference. People usually keep taking the medicine for a number of months. Antidepressant medicine is not addictive. Doctors will discuss with you how the medicine works and any potential side effects, which are usually short-lived and easily manageable.

Psychological therapy is effective in learning ways to overcome depression. Each person's experience is different, and the focus of therapy is on thoughts, feelings and behaviours and learning new ways to deal with difficult situations and to change the way people think about events and situations.

The Werry Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health fact sheets.
Mental Health Information New Zealand. 2002. Depression in childhood and adolescence. Mental Health Foundation: Wellington.

This page last reviewed 15 December 2018.
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